How to Stop Trying to Make the Next Big Festival Short Film and Become a Professional Filmmaker By Michael Dorgan of BATTLE BOYS
As filmmakers we all dream of the hitting the big-time.
Some of us visualize directing high-octane action scenes in Marvel blockbusters; others dream of accepting Palme D’ors at Cannes for nuanced art house dramas.
If only this next short film makes it big on the festival circuit, then we’ll get noticed.
We’ll raise the money for the short. Somehow. Haven’t you got some inheritance money lying around? We’ll rent an Arri Alexa. Or a Red — it shoots 4K. Remember, this is cinema.
At film school — the London Film School in my case — we learn to shoot short films on the finest equipment. It’s fantastic technical training. But, it doesn’t prepare us for an actual career in the film industry.
A year on from graduating, I speak to my fellow film school alumni and there aren’t many ‘careers’ to speak of.
Budding directors tell me, “I’m working on getting a short done in the next twelve months. The plan is to get funding and submit it to festivals.”
And the cinematography graduates tell me, “I’m doing a few shorts at the moment, but often they fall through. I’m trying to buy a camera, but I’m only getting paid expenses for shoots.”
Personally, my most notable achievement in the last twelve months has been making a 60-minute film that’s so far been broadcast on prime time TV in six countries across Europe and the Middle East.
This film did not screen in competition at a single film festival.
So what was the turning point for me?
A colourist mentioned while grading my graduation film that a filmmaker friend of his had sold his music documentary to BBC4 for £10,000. I’d just spent that much on this short film and wasn’t going to see any of it back! In fact, I was only going to spend more on festival submissions!
So, I decided I would make an hour-long TV documentary for the BBC. If the BBC didn’t buy it, there were lots of other public broadcasters across the world that might. At least I was making something that had intrinsic value — a film that could be sold.
At the time, I’d foolishly committed to doing an eight-marathon challenge with a friend, in which we’d run from London to Brussels in eight days.
I did some digging and found out that lots of marathon runners were dying unexpectedly. Worrying for my run, but good material for a documentary!
I decided to do an investigation into whether running is good for you, with myself as the test subject. I’d interview scientists and film my eight-marathon challenge.
I set up a production company — Go Forth Films — with my co-producer and girlfriend Felicity Mungovan. We got hold of a camera and pulled together a crew of people we had worked with before and trusted.
We paid people expenses only, but agreed that everyone would get a profit share if we made a profit. The scientists agreed to be interviewed for free — they also wanted to promote their work!
The 220-mile run from London to Brussels itself was utter agony for me, but made for great footage!
“I recently spoke to a lawyer who was thinking of quitting his job to become a filmmaker. I told him not to quit. Just start making films and see if you like it. He told me that he had social engagements most evenings — there wouldn’t be time. You have to make time. And sacrifices.” Michael Dorgan
When we’d shot and edited everything, I did the voiceover in my bedroom. I live under the Heathrow flight path, so we had to stop every time a plane went over. But, we got it done for the cost of hiring a sound recorder and microphone, rather than a sound studio. I wouldn’t recommend that everyone does this, but we managed to get away with it!
So, we had made a 60-minute TV documentary — Young, Fit & Dying: The Truth about Running. What do we do with it now?
I think there’s a common misconception that TV channels are closed shops. My experience is that they are actually very much open.
We simply e-mailed a synopsis and Vimeo link to the head of acquisitions at each channel we thought might want it. Most of them emailed us back with a yes or no. If they said yes, they’d offer a license fee and we’d go from there.
One tip I would give is that there are film markets that all the key decision makers attend. In our case we used Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Videotheque market. It’s inexpensive and meant that hundreds of acquisitions executives could watch our documentary in one place. Oh, and you only pay if you’re selected!
So we’ve made the big-time! Well, not quite.
A career in film is not like being on X Factor. The steps are small. The journey is hard and difficult to navigate. I shot a wedding for free the same week that our documentary had its first TV broadcast!
The line between amateur and professional has never been more blurred. We do lots of corporate work, write scripts in our spare time and help out on friends’ shorts.
To give you an idea, our next documentary, Battle Boys, is going to be partly funded through a Kickstarter campaign. We know the audience and where we want to distribute it. But, we’re still reliant on you — the passionate filmmakers — to help get it made (feel free to check out the link at the bottom of the page!)
In my opinion, I wasn’t necessarily the most talented filmmaker at film school, but I can now say that I’m a professional filmmaker, not an aspiring one.
And you can too.
Here are some basic principles that might help you escape the short film rat race and start your film career.
“If you want to be a documentary filmmaker, think beyond your feature length masterpiece that takes two years to film and the same again to edit. Spend that time doing lots of projects that improve your filmmaking skills and show the world what you can do.” Michael Dorgan
Firstly, film is a visual medium — you need to make films in order to get seen! Twelve months is way too long to spend on one short film.
Make films. Make mistakes. Learn. Make more films.
Secondly, be disciplined with yourself.
I recently spoke to a lawyer who was thinking of quitting his job to become a filmmaker. I told him not to quit. Just start making films and see if you like it. He told me that he had social engagements most evenings — there wouldn’t be time. You have to make time. And sacrifices.
Thirdly, it’s not all about the gear. If you only have access to a DSLR: use a DLSR. Surround yourself with talented people who can use these tools. And learn from them.
I did some cinematography on a friend’s short this past year. We shot on a Canon 550D — not even a good DSLR! I lit the inside of a ‘spacecraft’ by diffusing light through some greaseproof paper from his kitchen. That short won an award at Sundance London.
My fourth and most important piece of advice is…think about distribution and how it will progress your career.
If you want to make comedies, having thousands of views on your YouTube channel shows that you are funny. Being selected for a couple of niche film festivals doesn’t.
If you want to be a documentary filmmaker, think beyond your feature length masterpiece that takes two years to film and the same again to edit. Spend that time doing lots of projects that improve your filmmaking skills and show the world what you can do.
If you want to help Battle Boys get made then do please visit the Kickstarter, donate and share!
Due to the Australian government’s cuts to funding for film and television, we’ll be partly funding Battle Boys through a Kickstarter campaign. So if you’d like to help Battle Boys get made, please visit our Kickstarter page, donate and share!
ABOUT MICHAEL DORGAN:
Of Battle Boys, he says: “In many ways Battle Boys is a classic story an underground scene exploding, with all the conflicts associated with this. But, it’s also a beautifully unique story, specific to contemporary Australia and specific to the characters that inhabit this world. It’s a story of now; the power of YouTube; and of music in the 21st century”
Michael is a British producer and director. Michael graduated from the London Film School, having written and directed several short films that have played at international film festivals.
Since film school, he has worked on award-winning short films, online ads and TV documentaries.
For Go Forth’s debut documentary Young, Fit & Dying, Michael went in front of the camera to present. Part of this involved him running 8 marathons in 8 days in the name of science. He also interviewed top politicians, scientists and athletes.
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Check out Michael’s prior Film Courage Article: